Editor’s Note: This month marks the 40th anniversary of the jack-up rig George Ferris being “stuck firmly in 82 feet of clay just off the Homer Spit,” as the Homer News reported it on May 13, 1976. The incident proved to be the catalyst for the state to buy back oil leases that had been sold in Kachemak Bay. In this three-part series, Loren Flagg gives details of the Kachemak Bay oil lease sale and how the bay eventually was designated a Critical Habitat Area. The series is an abridged version of Chapter 10, “Kachemak Bay Oil Lease Fiasco” from his book “Fish, Oil & Follies.”
After biologists and chemists for SOCAL gave their dog-and-pony show, concluding that an offshore oil spill in Cook Inlet would have “insignificant effects,” Homer folks agreed that Big O’s presentation was certainly slick! But it was now Homer’s turn to speak.
Big Oil soon learned that Homer area residents were not as ignorant or naive as they may have presumed. A total of 18 citizens testified and the next day the Homer News characterized this testimony as follows: “The research that had been done, the carefully worked speeches, the backgrounds and expertise of individuals, the heartfelt emotions expressed by people who really care about their environment and quality of life in Homer, Alaska — all were impressive. Several fishermen spoke, noting the importance of the commercial fishing industry to Homer, the unique biological richness of Kachemak Bay, and the loss of pots they have already suffered from increased surface traffic.”
Perhaps the biggest impact of the day at the hearing had been made by a king crab. No one could forget when Bill Bledsoe came forward and deposited a huge crab on the table in front of Colonel Debelius and the hearing committee. “That’s a king crab, Colonel. His brothers and sisters and cousins are still out there in the bay. I know how they feel because I’ve been in touch with them.” When Bledsoe finished his testimony, the Colonel eyed the mouth watering evidence and asked “Ah, Mr. Bledsoe, may I keep this crab?” Bledsoe replied “Hell no, I can get ten dollars for that!” He then snatched the crab off the table and promptly exited the room to a standing ovation.
An interesting side note and testimony to the politics of the times was that in contrast to the Homer News and Anchorage Daily News, both of which focused their coverage of the hearing on area residents’ concerns over oil development in Kachemak Bay, the Anchorage Times’ story of the hearing was titled “Bay Oil Poses No Threat.”
Kachemak Bay Suit Dismissed
Homer area fishermen and lost their challenge to the legality of the 1973 state oil and gas lease sale in May 1975, when Superior Court Judge Shultz of Ketchikan ruled that it should be dismissed. His decision was based on the “doctrine of laches,” which Shultz defined as “an unreasonable delay in asserting rights, which results in a disadvantage or prejudice to the defendants.” Lawyer for the plaintiffs, Warren Matthews, then appealed the narrow legal ruling to the Alaska Supreme Court.
Governor Jay Joins the Battle
When Hammond took office in 1975, he pledged to buy back the leases because of the potential danger to rich fisheries resources in the bay and because there was no public debate prior to the sale. It was not an easy decision. The governor’s dilemma, according to his spokesman, Attorney General Avrum Gross, was that he had an “obligation to honor the state’s written agreements,” although he “personally felt heartsick” about the sale. Despite opposition within his own Republican party and the oil industry, he forged ahead. By mid-June 1975, Gov. Hammond announced his decision to side with fishermen in attempts to block exploratory drilling for oil in Kachemak Bay. Speaking for Hammond, Attorney General Gross said that the administration was considering asking the legislature to cancel the leases through state condemnation proceedings, and subsequently establish a sanctuary in the bay. The headline in a New York Times editorial on July 5, 1975 read “Alaska Governor Chooses Fish Over Oil in Kachemak Bay Fight.”
Enter the Ferris
Meanwhile the jack-up drill rig George Ferris was making headlines again. The rig had been heavily damaged following a drilling operation off Cape Kasilof in January, when one of its leg jacks jammed and explosives were used to allow it to float free. Following this incident, the rig was to be towed to Kachemak Bay for repairs. Shell had promised to have a local fisherman aboard the rig when it was moved to guide it through the fishing grounds where several hundred crab pots, with buoys and lines, were in place.
Inexplicably, the fisherman was never called and the rig was moved during the night and early morning hours, resulting in significant crab pot losses in the Bluff Point area. Knowing the sensitivity of the situation, Sun Marine Drilling, contractor for the rig, acted responsibly and quickly settled fishermen’s claims for pot losses.
However, now the oil industry made a huge error which would eventually cost them the rights to ever drill in Kachemak Bay. They selected an area known as Mud Bay as the site to park the rig while repairs were underway. One would think the name alone would have brought about some concern and degree of caution. Fishermen warned that once a crab pot was mired in the mud in this area it was impossible to retrieve. Nonetheless, the four huge iron legs of the Ferris were lowered into the mud, eventually settling 82 feet deep.
Repairs to the rig took nearly five months and cost some $6 million. By early August, Offshore Constructors had begun conducting tests on the jacking system and shortly after the first rumors that the rig was stuck in the mud began to fly. The Homer News headline for August 28, 1975, read “Oil Rig Fouled In Rumors.” When questioned by the media, Ralph Oxenrider, vice president of Offshore Contractors, stated that “there is no validity to the story about our being stuck.” The Ferris would then remain in Mud Bay for another eight months, before it would make headlines again.
Citizens Battle On
On the citizen front it was the Kachemak Bay Defense Fund, led by Frank Tupper, that would organize the battle against the oil companies. Tupper joined forces with the North Pacific Fishermen’s Association, headed up by Ken Moore, in a fund-raising effort to support the cause. By September 1975, the Defense Fund announced plans to launch a nationwide drive, mailing some 8,000 support flyers asking for contributions as well as sponsoring crab and shrimp feeds throughout the country. The fishermen’s association donated seafood products for these fundraisers and helped the Defense Fund meet its legal bills, which had climbed to nearly $90,000.
As the legal battle went on and as Gov. Hammond and the legislature became more involved in the Kachemak Bay issue, a second group of Homer citizens, known as the “Boomers,” decided it was time to get more actively involved. A poll was conducted and the results showed that Homer favored Kachemak Bay drilling, but it soon became clear that the poll could not pass the “unbiased test.” Many commercial fishermen and others known to have concerns, claimed that they had never been contacted and charged that the poll had been distributed selectively to people known to support oil development. The headline in the Anchorage Times read “Poll Taker Denies It Was Stacked” and in the Homer News “Homer Poll Results Unclear.”
Attorney General Gross was then directed to seek clarification on how Homer regarded the leases. At a town meeting Gross requested that folks stand if they supported leaving the leases intact, allowing for oil drilling in Kachemak Bay. By the attorney general’s count, 18 persons of the approximately 400 in attendance, rose to the occasion. When the question was reversed, seeking condemnation of the leases, there was hardly time to count all who had risen. It was estimated that the ratio was 12-1 against development.
About the author: At the time of the Kachemak Bay oil lease sale in 1973, Loren Flagg was area biologist for Cook Inlet Commercial Fisheries. Flagg retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 1987. After his retirement, he worked as a consultant to the commercial fisheries industry and as a sport fishing guide on the Kenai River. In April 1989, he was hired by the Kenai Peninsula Borough to head up the Cook Inlet area response to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. He lives in Kenai.